Sample Copyright: The Executioner Of Hip-Hop

SSampling is understood on a variety of levels. Some see it simply as ripping a track off from its previous success, an easy option to make money in a difficult industry to do so. Others, such as Michael Dean of Scotland based hip-hop production duo Jazz Spastiks, are of the opinion that sampling is a fine art, and there is a very definitive skill to placing the sample in a new context and making it work without repeating the original.

“Sampling transforms sources by placing them in the new environment of hip-hop lyrics and other samples. Rather than copying the original source, hip-hop producers critique and respond to the original through juxtaposition, parody, and direct commentary.”

Was Foucault a plagiarist? Hip-hop sampling and academic citation Mikey Hess (2006)

The above quote relates hip-hop sampling to academic citation and defines the practice perfectly through a unique view. However, not all saw it so simply, and some started to question whether the artist involved with the first release was then entitled to a cut of the profit made by the use of the sample. This is when sample copyright law came into effect and changed the way a lot of music is produced and perceived. One of the first major legal cases can be seen as far back as 1987 with British dance one hit wonders MARRS with their single ‘Pump Up The Volume’. As the record climbed into the top ten, producers Stock Aitken Waterman filed an injunction lawsuit as a result of the unauthorized use of their number one single ‘Roadblock’. In the end the dispute was settled out of court as the group agreed to remove the sample from the production of the record overseas.

Hip-hop was hit the hardest as a result of progressively more court rulings against sampling, as it is traditionally a sample based genre. Despite this, different hip-hop artists and producers found different ways around the law, altering and playing with the sample so it cannot be recognised which is ‘the skill of today’s hip-hop producer’ according to the Jazz Spastiks’ Michael Dean.

However, not all artists took such a discreet approach to sampling. A perfect illustration can be seen in the form of American producer and artist Dangermouse (Brian Burton) with his album entitled the ‘Grey Album’ released in 2004. The album uses a great number of samples from first of all, Jay Z’s ‘The Black Album’ and secondly the Beatles’ ‘The White Album’, hence the title.

“A lot of people just assume I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do. It is an art form. It is music. You can do different things, it doesn’t have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that.”

Dangermouse (Brian Burton)

Predictably, the album gained Dangermouse a huge amount of notoriety as EMI attempted to halt the distribution of the album, despite both Jay Z and Sir Paul McCartney saying they had no problems with the use of the samples. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the work, this cease of distribution bid didn’t come to fruition. In fact, on February 24, 2004 there was a day of coordinated online protest against EMI’s decision to attempt to cease distribution of Dangermouse’s ‘Grey Album’, in particular, and also against the idea that sampling is an unfair method on the whole. Hundreds of websites took part in the protest with approximately 170 posting the album for download. The online objection was a resounding success with over 100,000 copies of the album downloaded on that day alone.

The risk taken in blatant sampling is there for all to see but, with the right amount of success and support, it can be a risk well worth taking.

Marc Vasmant writes articles about issues in the contemporary music industry.